Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Human Embryo Sparks Debate

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Mar 24, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Wrongful Death Lawsuit Over Human Embryo Sparks Debate Email this article
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by Maria Vitale Gallagher
LifeNews.com Staff Writer
March 24, 2005

Chicago, IL (LifeNews.com) — A Chicago judge’s decision last month to allow a couple to pursue a wrongful death suit over the destruction of a frozen embryo has sent shockwaves throughout the legal community and the biotech industry.

When Alison Miller and Todd Parrish filed their suit, they simply wanted compensation for the killing of their embryo at a fertility clinic.

But Judge Jeffrey Lawrence’s decision in the case has raised new questions about the legal definition of when life begins.

Jeffrey Kahn of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota concedes that pro-life contentions about the definition of personhood and advances in technologies such as ultrasound are affecting public perception of the embryo.

“All that rhetoric, and the ability to manipulate and understand more about developing embryos and fetuses–it pushes back in people’s minds the point at which we should be thinking about this as a person and not a thing,” Kahn told the Christian Science Monitor.

In 2000, Miller and Parrish discovered that the Center for Human Reproduction had thrown out their frozen embryo. The fertility clinic apologized for the error, but the couple sued under the state’s wrongful death act.

In his ruling, Judge Lawrence wrote, “Philosophers and theologians may debate. But there is no doubt in the mind of the Illinois legislature when life begins. It begins at conception.”

According to James Costello, the attorney representing Miller and Parrish, the state’s wrongful death act makes it clear that the age of an embryo or fetus should play no role in a court’s decision.

But Judge Lawrence’s ruling has raised concerns among members of the biotech industry.

“It makes everyone nervous,” Robert Schenken of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine told the Monitor. Schenken estimates there are nearly half a million frozen embryos in the U.S.

“If the embryo is considered human life when it’s first developed, that puts the clinic and lab director at obvious risk. Laboratory mistakes happen…Even though it’s a state law, the implications are very important for all clinics that perform in vitro,” Schenken told the Monitor.

The lawsuit could also have a great deal of symbolic impact, according to Kahn.

“If you’re following the philosophical argument, it would make all (embryonic) stem cell research immoral. And what does it say about the half-million frozen embryos?” Kahn told the Monitor.

In his decision, Judge Lawrence said, “a pre-embryo is a ‘human being’ … whether or not it is implanted in its mother’s womb."

Pro-life activists note that, when people begin to see an embryo or fetus as a person, a change in abortion law is likely to result.

“You have to feel an emotion toward the victim,” Joseph Scheidler of the Pro-Life Action League told the Monitor.

The Illinois Wrongful Death Act contains an exception for abortion and pro-abortion activists don’t expect this suit to affect legalized abortion.

“It would definitely have implications for (embryonic) stem cell research and assisted-reproductive technology,” Lorie Chaiten of the ACLU of Illinois told the Monitor. “But it shouldn’t affect (legalized abortion).”